A Four Part Blog Series

Over the coming weeks, MATRIC Matters will be exploring the possible drivers and objectives for pilot plants and, just as importantly, how those objectives can impact the pilot plant design.  We will start out by exploring some of the basic goals and drivers for building and operating pilot plants.  From there, we will explore the importance of really understanding the project sponsor’s objectives.  We will explore how some of those goals and objectives can and should impact the pilot plant design and, finally, we will end with some specific technical examples and considerations for technical validation and scale up.

This week, we will begin with our first blog that explores some of the basic reasons and goals for building and operating pilot plants.

Possible Drivers and Goals for Building and Operating Pilot Plants

Pilot plants are small-scale production systems used to practically test and validate a production technology before commercialization. Generally, the primary motivation behind building and operating pilot plants is to understand and explore a new technology. Lessons learned can help establish valuable experience and data that results in a safer, more efficient and commercially viable larger or full-scale production facility.

Even though commercialization is the primary motivation for pilot plant projects, there can be multiple, complex objectives that will vary by project, organization and goals. Examples include scale up, technical process validation, economic process validation, and production of sample materials or market development quantities. The differences in these objectives can have significant implications on the design basis, cost and schedule for the plant construction and operation. Therefore, it is important to understand these reasons very early in a pilot plant project.

Process Scale-Up

Process scale-up for a technology is one of the most common reasons to build a pilot plant. Scale-up involves the collection of data in order to design a larger, full-scale production plant or occasionally an intermediate sized demonstration plant based on the pilot plant operation. Some aspects of a pilot plant scale up directly while others scale up in a more complex manner. In today’s environment, pilot plants can also bring real life data into sophisticated modeling techniques. With the availability of computer aided design and complex modeling capabilities, pilot plants have become a tool for testing and refining computational models. A mathematical model is developed for the pilot plant and its validity and consistency is checked by comparing the computational results with experimental observations. Once a sufficiently reliable model has evolved that accurately predicts the results for a wide range of operating parameters, the computational model can be more reliably used as a tool in the development of a larger or full scale plant.

Validate the full process for technical purposes

A complex process is divided into a series of unit operations during design. Each unit operation is modeled and studied individually for designing the relevant components of a plant. A pilot plant helps in testing if equipment and control concepts perform as desired once unit operations are tied together. This is very important if recycle streams are involved as the pilot plant will demonstrate if impurities are building in recycle streams and causing operational problems.  Full plant operation also helps in defining the safe operating envelope within which the plant must be operated to ensure compliance with safety codes and regulations.

Validate the process for economic and business purposes

New technologies and products being marketed for commercialization are justifiably scrutinized by investors and/or senior techno-economic-chemical-design-technology-improvement. A pilot plant provides proof of concept to mitigate risks and allay investor concerns. A company can more accurately estimate raw material costs, production costs and process yield from the operation of a pilot plant. These numbers are often key factors that determine the economic feasibility of a project.

Produce samples for quality and performance evaluation

Small product quantities are often needed for internal evaluation and testing against quality standards. Customers may also request samples before approval. At this stage in the development process, a larger production facility may not even exist, and sample quantities are often too large for lab-scale production.  A pilot plant can produce these samples in quantity using a process resembling the ultimate, commercial process, leading to more representative samples than can normally be produced in a laboratory.   Furthermore, after the creation of a larger scale plant and the commercial introduction of products, a pilot plant can allow the full-scale plant to continue its commercial operations without interruptions from R&D for product evaluation of different products or new product recipes.

Market development production

New products that do not have an established market can be tricky to launch. Initial sales are slow and do not justify installation and operation of a large-scale production facility, and often potential customers need to test the materials on a production scale before they can commit to product acceptance.  In this market development phase, a pilot or demonstration plant can provide larger scale samples or small commercial quantities to bridge the gap as the market is being developed and proven.  This mode can continue until it makes economic and market sense for to pursue a larger, commercial scale plant.

Understanding a project’s goals is of utmost importance before building a pilot plant. This understanding is especially important when a team has not just one, clear-cut objective or reason, but multiple reasons.  A combination of reasons can add complexity to decision making.  Therefore, the team should have a solid grasp on all of the reasons for building a pilot plant prior to design and build.  To do otherwise could result in significant delays and additional costs to the program.

In an upcoming blog post, we will outline a best practice for understanding the major reasons for the pilot plant, secondary objectives and how the project team can clearly understand the order of priority of these objectives.

If you have any questions about MATRIC’s pilot plant capabilities, please contact Rob Nunley.